The priority of Scripture over tradition ought not to blind us to the genuine value of tradition. Tradition, as Herman Bavinck was fond of saying binds generation to generation, keeping each from falling into spiritual individualism. But tradition always seems to give rise to misunderstandings and tensions within the Church, especially when respect for tradition gives way to suspicion of everything new.
There are strong tradition-oriented elements in the Church which remind us that our strength lies in holding fast to what has been ever true. These elements usually express fear that the Church is in danger of losing what it has received. The voices are loud when the Church seems to be passing through uncertain and strange times and ways. The finger of warning is raised then, and the spector of Daniel’s great outlaw is seen, the one who “thinks to change times and laws.” Falling away is to be observed in many places, and the Church is ready to fall victim to apostasy. So it is to the traditionalist.
From another camp we are likely to hear that the signs of change are really tokens of renewal. The dynamic of life is held at a premium, as it shapes, forms, creates new paths that lead us into new forms of work and worship. This camp does not accept change as impoverishment, but as enrichment. It dare to accept the challenge of a new day.
These two tendencies can easily lead their representatives into opposition. Estrangement can then be caused between men who ought to be united in a common task. In the tension between traditionalism and progressivism, men often fail to come together, to understand, sometimes even to speak with each other. Now and then tension breaks the Church apart. As both sides speak from a sense of responsibility to the Church, it is especially tragic when their differences cause schism in the Church. We have seen what the forming of two camps, the conservatives and the progressives, can do to the Church.
The harm that such group forming has done and can do to the Church is strange and tragic when we consider that the very dilemma is an utterly unreal one as far as the Gospel is concerned. One can recall many texts of Scripture which put the dilemma aside. Paul exhorts Timothy to “keep that which is committed to thy trust” (1 Tim. 6:20). But the arrival of the Kingdom of Christ is such a new thing that we are warned not to try to “put new wine in old bottles” (Mark 2:22). The New Testament is wholly taken up with the radically new, but it never forgets God’s old ways. The former ways of God were directed at nothing other than the coming of this new age. Surely in the light of God’s ways, the dilemma between the progressive and the traditional is a false one.
Our trouble is that we are not personally in such a spiritual and intellectual frame as to grasp the scriptural harmony between accepting the new and preserving the old. This is why the dilemma has had such perverse power in the Church. We lose sight of the biblical wholeness in which both old and new have a part. The Gospel not only has room for both camps: it corrects and reforms them both, pointing the way for both to walk and work together in the fellowship and task of the Church universal.
According to the Gospel we may also say that the phrase “conservative theology” has no significance in itself. The expression stems from the Church’s historic polemic against modernism. Conservatism still has meaning, then, as a reminder that We are to keep our trust in the face of attacks against the Gospel. But a biblically defined theology cannot be described in terms of conservatism. For it is and must be progressive. The Gospel must be allowed to lead us into whatever new and surprising paths it has for us.
We cannot assume that we have exhausted the biblical resources for our understanding of the truth. Consider such mysteries as that of the Word of God coming through the word of man, of God’s electing grace, of our eschatological hope, and many other biblical themes. We have not yet come into the inheritance of complete understanding.
The dangers in conservatism lie in its temptation to forget that the riches of the Word of God are inexhaustible. When it yields to this temptation, it fails to do justice to the Scriptures it seeks to defend. For when one assumes that all has been known and said in the past, he closes the door on new truth that God has yet in store for us. And he shuts the window to the breezes of self-reformation.
Only as we realize that faithfulness to old truths open up new doors of truth to us can we keep the false contradiction between conservatism and progressivism from haunting us. The message is too great for this dilemma and our task is too urgent for us to let it hamper our fulfilling it. There will be need for keeping our eyes open to the dangers that lurk in new and strange paths. We shall have to warn and correct each other. Perhaps just now, in the face of the rich field of biblical studies that has opened new questions and new opportunities, the need for watching closely is especially real.
We may dare hope that God will spare us from the burden of having to accept either progressivism or conservatism as such. We do not have to make a choice between them. Indeed, we shall do the Church a distinct service by refusing to accept the banner of either camp. The future of a rich and fruitful theological effort depends in great measure on our being able to steer clear of the brand-mark of either conservatism or progressivism. We must work, not as progressives or conservatives, but as students of the Word of God.
In this way, theology shall be in a state to serve the pulpit. As long as theologians listen, confident that there is still something to hear, they can be of fruitful service. If they understand something of Job’s feelings, expressed, indeed, while he stood amazed at the wonderful works of God in nature, but relevant also to theology, they will be on the right path. “Lo, these are parts of his ways; but how little a portion is heard of him? but the thunder of his power who can understand?” (Job 26:14). G. C. BERKOUWEH
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